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Joe Henderson: Legislature move on USF could leave St. Pete rattled

Boom!

That sound you heard emanating from the western side of the Tampa Bay area wasn’t a sonic blast, or the exhaust fumes from an unidentified flying object.

But if you’re still searching for answers to why your windows rattled this morning, check out the University of South Florida St. Petersburg – or, as that campus likes to call itself, USFSP.

Officials and faculty are no doubt still pondering how their life will different if a move in the Florida Legislature to combine USF’s three branches – Tampa, St. Pete, and Sarasota-Manatee – into one big single university is successful.

So what, you ask?

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So, here’s what: goodbye relative autonomy for the smaller schools and hello to a new identity of being simply a branch off the giant USF main tree in Tampa. And if you don’t know how much they would hate that in St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee, then you don’t understand university politics.

USFSP has a history of going rogue against the authority of the Mother Ship on Fowler Avenue in Tampa. The short version is this: the good educators in St. Pete don’t want to be a branch on anyone’s tree. They have wanted to be a separate entity, making their decisions.

With the blessing of the Legislature in the 1990s, that’s kind of what they got after faculty and officials in St. Pete complained about being disrespected by the larger campus in Tampa.

There were limitations to that independence, as now-former USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

She was fired by USF President Judy Genshaft for essentially dereliction of duty when she left town during the storm but tried to imply that she was on the job protecting students and the campus.

“Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community,” is how Genshaft phrased it.

St. Pete got the message: You still belong to me.

Not long after that, the St. Pete campus lost one its main defenders when powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala resigned after being caught up in a sex scandal that swirls today.

Latvala fiercely fought for the autonomy of USFSP while in office, and officials in Tampa were concerned that he might try to break off the St. Pete campus altogether – following the model by former state Sen. JD Alexander who hijacked the USF campus in Polk County to create Florida Polytechnic University.

Tampa officials were concerned Latvala might try to include the prestigious USF College of Marine Science in a hostile takeover. The college, while located on the St. Pete campus, has been under full control of Tampa and is a cash cow in terms of generating donations.

With Latvala gone, though, the relative silence coming from Tampa after Tuesday’s news that Rep. Chris Sprowls filed a bill that would combine the campuses indicates Genshaft probably is smiling quietly.

For what it’s worth, Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, is a USF graduate.

Without Latvala to break knees and lead the opposition, the odds that this consolidation happens would seem to be greatly increased. Sprowls told the Tampa Bay Times that everyone should be happy about this because, “It’s an opportunity for St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee to have a pre-eminent university in their community. I think, naturally, it will have them rising together as opposed to being separate limbs.”

I doubt seriously that’s how USFSP is looking at this.

It goes back to the long regional rivalry between Tampa and St. Pete, and the complaint from the west side of the Bay that Tampa gets everything.

That’s not as true as it used to be. In this case though, it might the best way to describe what might happen.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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